Refocusing on Evangelism: Prescription for Missional Astigmatism Part I by Dr. Ramesh Richard

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Spiritual Gifts: We are Gifted & Called to Minister
October 30, 2017
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Refocusing on Evangelism: Prescription for Missional Astigmatism Part II by Dr. Ramesh Richard
October 31, 2017

Refocusing on Evangelism: Prescription for Missional Astigmatism Part I by Dr. Ramesh Richard

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Please note: this article appeared originally in the Missio Nexxus publication, an organization attempting to return the North American missions community to the basics of evangelism, discipleship and church planting at its 100th anniversary year.

The Christian Faith experiences weakness, even rapid waning when evangelism is lost in the heart, mind, and activity of its adherents. Christianity on both sides of the North Atlantic arc provides empirical proof of evangelistic neglect leading to missional collapse, and dare I remark, civilizational decline. First, then a confession, and then some convictions for your personal and agency considerations toward spiritual and organizational restructure.[1]

“Uncorrected poor vision is one of the most pressing problems in the developing world. The World Health Organization estimates that 180 million people – 90 percent of them in poor countries – suffer serious visual impairments.”[2] In a place like Ghana, getting glasses can take a week’s travel and several months’ wages. Sometime ago I read of an Oxford University physicist who developed a novel remedy – eyeglasses that allow wearers to correct their own vision with no need for an optometrist. He calls them “adaptive glasses.”

Their lenses are filled with silicone oil and form a chamber bounded by polyester film. Turning a small frame-mounted pump changes the amount of oil in the lenses and, therefore, the power of the glasses. Users adjust the oil levels on each side until they can see clearly, a process that takes about 30 seconds.

The glasses do not correct astigmatism, but they are effective against nearsightedness and farsightedness.[3]

I wrote a “wow” in the margin of that joyous news item. I also saw the many obvious connections between the article and evangelism. People, billions of individuals, desperately need help in their spiritual blindness for “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving” (2 Corinthians 4:4 NASB). While the idea of fluid-filled lenses has existed since the eighteenth century, the notion of Jesus being the correction for spiritual astigmatism has existed for two thousand years. Paul implicitly reveals the only solution to spiritual blindness: “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they [the spiritually blinded, unbelieving, and perishing] might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4 NASB). When the light of the glory of Christ descends on the blind, Christian conversion happens.

Confession

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Exploring the metaphor of the adaptive glasses took a far more personal twist. It was I who frequently experienced missional visual impairment. Spiritual astigmatism in my own life had been tackled at my conversion. But my problem of farsightedness (nearby objects blurred) needed ongoing correction … and affected the nearsightedness (distant objects blurred) of the ministries I serve. Though evangelism is included in our organizational name, and I have taught evangelism at a rather well-known institution (founded by an evangelist), I/we needed personal, organizational, even institutional correction.

I find that evangelism is primarily undertaken among leaders and professors by proxy. We get so involved in the vocationally important (nearsighted) and existentially immediate (farsighted) that we lose sight of the critically important, the highest rung in the ladder of Christian responsibility to humanity – personally bringing news of the Lord Jesus to the lost everywhere – as widely, wisely, and winsomely as possible. And all without delay.

We leaders need to wear spiritually self-adjusted glasses ourselves. We need to turn the wheel on the pump of our Christian glasses to release the fluid, find the best level of adjustment, close the sealing valve, and work the adjusters in order to see the lost more clearly. Each time our own spiritual sight becomes impaired, distracted by the circumstance, and occupied with the urgent, we need to repeat that adjuster sequence. We shall not become comfortable with our loss of vision nor justify the retreat from personal evangelistic involvement.

To you as a Christian leader who interprets reality for your organization, I invite you to revisit your personal involvement in evangelism. Have pressing administrative responsibilities, or apparently more “successful” projects, competitively drowned evangelistic aliveness in your soul? Have you downgraded evangelism in your heart, though not in words? When was the last time you personally introduced someone to salvation? Or organizationally rejoiced with the angels of heaven over one repentant sinner? Has all this resulted in the organizational marginalization of evangelism as the foundation for obeying our Lord’s personal, final, global Commission? If assessed by the allocation of personal time and mind, organizational personnel, and resources, would ministry auditors conclude that your agency has shelved evangelistic activity?

If you don’t have evangelistically clear eyes, you can’t live a basic evangelistic life; and if you don’t personalize evangelistic activity, you can’t lead your missions agency toward evangelism. Will you join me in personal confession, today, perhaps, on your knees – a good posture of confession – about this lack?

Now, to the missions agency you serve as leader. Some among us evangelicals have too often been eloquently accused for focusing on salvation rather than discipleship – “many converts, few disciples!” Or sharing a message of “fire-insurance” for the future rather than obedience to the whole gospel in the present situation of people. It may be proclamation evangelism by word without demonstration by deed, or a transactional closure approach towards conversions rather than the transformational nurturing of disciples. Perhaps evangelism itself, though as a concept or activity, it is missionally deficient or culturally irrelevant.

And all this without the adversarial stereotyping of evangelicals (an otherwise “good’ word, evangelical from εὐαγγέλιον!) by pollsters, politicians, and public intellectuals!

Conviction

I expound biblical-theological conviction for refocusing and revaluing evangelism, that goes beyond personal confession. For we don’t implement what we merely believe, we carry out what we value. Click To Tweet When we personally, organizationally and institutionally revalue what we have unintentionally devalued, we will intentionally rebalance our programs and curricula to demonstrate evangelistic priority in our projects and resource allocation.

The Spiritual Situation of the Unbeliever

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A biblical sample of the current but correctable status of nonbelievers renders pause for believers as well as possibilities for the nonbelievers. These convictions stimulate involvement and beckon our investment in evangelistic ministry. Please process slowly and deeply.

People who have not yet called on the Lord Jesus are:

  • sinners and yet can be justified (Galations 3:22–23)
  • guilt-ridden and yet can be forgiven (Acts 13:38)
  • dead in tresspasses and sins and yet can be made alive (Ephesians 2:2–5; Colossians 2:13)
  • asleep and yet can be awakened (Ephesians 5:14)
  • unsaved and yet can be saved (Acts 16:30–31)
  • enslaved and yet can be freed (John 8:34–36)
  • cursed and yet can be redeemed (Galations 3:13–14; 1 Peter 1:18)
  • sick and yet can be healed (1 Peter 2:24)
  • lost and yet can be found (Isaiah 53:6; Luke 15)
  • blind and yet can be cured (John 9:35–41)
  • unrighteous and yet can be declared righteous (Romans 3:23–26)
  • eternally condemned and yet can be acquitted (John 3:18)
  • spiritually hungry and thirsty and yet can be nourished (John 6:35)
  • empty and destructible and yet can be possessors of full life (John 10:10)
  • burdened and weary and yet can find rest (Matthew 11:28)
  • imprisoned by the dominion of darkness and yet can be rescued (Colossians 1:13)

That contrarian phrase, the divine and yet, provides salvation hope for unbelievers in spite of their present and sorry situation. God designs and builds the longest spiritual suspension bridge known, needed, and possible – from earth to heaven. Heaven’s “and yet bridge” is woven with several strands so that nonbelievers can indeed be brought to God’s heaven if the strong cables are anchored at both ends. Fortunately, that condition has been met in heaven and history.

Heaven’s end of God’s “and-yet bridge,” the farther side, is anchored in God’s eternal choice. That eternal choice is not only a past event but a present and future event, for eternity comprises all aspects of time.

The earth’s side of God’s “and-yet bridge” needed an anchor too. God certainly could not anchor it in fickle, sinful, human beings. So he sent his one and only Son to anchor the suspension bridge of salvation on the earth by his death and resurrection. Presently, the Holy Spirit shuttles as “the traveling wheel” between heaven’s side and the earth’s side. He lays successive parallel strands – one of which is evangelism – to build salvation’s suspension bridge for each person, drawing individuals to call on Jesus, and experience God’s and yet actions.

The Instrumental Necessity of Evangelism

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The successive, parallel strands for a person to savingly call on the Lord Jesus are sequenced in Romans 10:14–15:

  1. A sending of the preacher
  2. A preaching of Jesus
  3. A hearing about Jesus
  4. A believing on the One

For an unbeliever to call on Jesus takes believing, which takes hearing, which takes preaching, which takes a preacher being sent. The Holy Spirit of God lays the cable at each one of these levels. He orchestrates the sending of the preacher, empowers the preaching of Jesus, moves the individual from exposure to salvific hearing, and inclines his heart toward believing on the One. Then the Lord richly blesses any caller (Jew or Gentile) with salvation (Romans 10:13).

Our role in the Holy Spirit’s strand-laying concerns the effective presentation of Jesus in the hearing of unbelievers. We responsibly prepare to evangelize effectively, for they cannot hear without a preacher. Turning that hearing into calling by believing, lies in the Holy Spirit’s court of responsibility, not ours. Yet in God’s economy throughout history, he has utilized our evangelism as a necessary instrumental step toward unbelievers’ salvific hearing.

The instrumental necessity of evangelism varies from the efficient necessity of evangelism. Evangelism doesn’t cause salvation any more than a hammer causes a wooden fence, a lens causes light, or a pen causes a book. Yet the general reality is clear: there is no wooden fence without tools, no reflection without lenses, no writing without writing instruments, and no human salvation without evangelistic activity.

The Lord Jesus as Exclusive for Human Salvation

missionFour aspects of Jesus’s personal and salvific necessity control our motivated involvement in evangelism. I derive all these from Peter’s simple declaration in one of the first evangelistic presentations ever: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12 ESV).

  1. Uniqueness of Jesus. There is no salvation outside the person of Jesus.
  2. Exclusivity of Jesus. There is no salvation without the name of Jesus in preaching, hearing, and believing – an epistemological need.
  3. Universality of Jesus. There is no salvation for any in the whole world of human beings without the person and name of Jesus – universal sufficiency.
  4. Necessity of Jesus. The person and name of Jesus is the sufficient and necessary means of human salvation – an ontological necessity.[4]

If we aren’t convinced of the uniqueness, exclusivity, universality, sufficiency, and necessity of Jesus in human salvation, the life-changing content in evangelism will be blunted.

The Destiny of the Lost without Jesus

Those who do not call on Jesus experience lostness forever, a separation from God’s life eternally. Hell militates against every muscle, grates against even the crustiest fibers in my being. Like C. S. Lewis, “there is no doctrine I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this if it lay in my power.”[5] The unbeliever does not need to do anything to be lost forever. The most beloved Bible verse of all time, which narrates the incomparable love of God for the world (John 3:16), implies the obvious: one believes on Jesus to not perish, but whoever does not believe on the Son is already perishing and continues to perish (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:15; 4:3). The wrath of God that already is upon him, “remains on him” (John 3:36). Physical death only confirms an unbeliever’s eternal lostness and hurls him into an eternal hell.

The nature of hell as literal – “a real place where people suffer eternal fiery torments” – or metaphorical – “an anguished state of existence eternally separated from God” [6] – can be reduced to mere theoretical discussion or cause intense angst in the heart of the evangelist. America’s most brilliant thinker, the theologian of the heart orated, “The wrath of God burns against them, their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow.”[7] Just as our best thoughts about heaven would be inadequate to explore its grandeur, our worst thoughts about hell, whether in imaginative art or caricatured media, would scarcely touch the realities of its horror.

Hell, like heaven, is at least literal, but more than literal. The literal “fire” view can comprise the metaphorical “anguish” view but not the other way around. We must consider the precedent of the Mosaic “burning bush that didn’t burn” and the horrific narrative of Lazarus and the rich man in eternally conscious, quarantined situations. Both views carry the irrevocable, binding permanence of eternity.[8]

Though I write these words while listening to a cheery Boston Pops orchestral performance with private headphones in a convenient climate-controlled library carrel, a holy hush has descended on my soul. Hell indeed is ghastly and dastardly, horrible, and sickening. I contemplate the billions, present, past, and future, near and far, in reachable and unreachable situations, who shall not hear the name of Jesus. If at least half of all who lived in history are alive at present, would not at least half of hell’s population be alive right now? My only assurance arises from God’s justice that will keep anyone from hell who should not be there. Yet that also means that no one will be in heaven who should not be there. Theologically convinced about the literal reality of the eternally conscious lostness of large numbers of people, we must deliver the Good News of Jesus personally, effectively, widely, and quickly. Perhaps the savable will be salvaged.

While pondering the destiny of the lost to an eternal hell, the promise of an eternal heaven for them unleashes our evangelistic involvement as well. Could God use us to depopulate hell and thereby increase the population of heaven? If we aren’t convinced of the eternal lostness and abandonment of those without Christ, a burning bosom needed for evangelism has been quenched.

Article to be continued in Part 2


  • [1]Much in this article has been summarized from my Preparing Evangelistic Sermons, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015, Chapter 2.
  • [2]I obtained this illustration from a hope-giving article, “Self-adjusted Glasses Could Be Boon to Africa,” by Nicholas Thompson, NYT, December 10, 2002, D6.
  • [3]Ibid.
  • [4]For an extended exegesis of this Acts passage especially in terms of inclusivist assertions, see my Population of Heaven, Chicago: Moody Press, 1994, pages 57-60.
  • [5]C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1944), 106.
  • [6]Jeffery L. Sheler, “Hell Hath No Fury,” U.S. News & World Report, January 31, 2000, 47
  • [7]Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God, www.jonathanedwards.com/sermons/warnings/sinners.htm.
  • [8]For instance, see Edward W. Fudge and Robert A. Peterson, Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2000).

About the Author:  Dr. Ramesh Richard serves as the founder and president of RREACH; general convener of the Global Proclamation Congress for Pastoral Trainers 2016; professor of Global Theological Engagement and Pastoral Ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary; and founder and chairman of Trainers of Pastors International Coalition. He holds a ThD in Systematic Theology from Dallas Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Delhi.

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